ASL provides an alternative language for people with disabilities

Fingerspelling alphabet, spelling of ASL.

Despite growing up hard-of-hearing, Ontario Tech University communications student Aly Beach, says her parents focused on raising her to be ‘normal’, so she wasn’t super involved with the deaf community.

When she was younger, she had a friend who was very interested in deaf culture.

Her friend had a placemat on her dining room table with fingerspelling on it. Intrigued by the forms, Beach spent a fair bit of time trying to mimic the fingerspelling.

Fingerspelling is the process of spelling out words by using hand shapes that correspond to the letters of a word. It is used when a word doesn’t have a known sign.

Fingerspelling, also known as a manual alphabet, is a part of American Sign Language (ASL). Over five-hundred thousand Canadians use ASL to communicate.

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Although there is no definitive number, the Government of Canada says there are an estimated 357,000 profoundly deaf and deafened Canadians and possibly 3.21 million hard of hearing people living in Canada.

Yet some people feel they don’t fit the mould of the deaf, or hearing, communities.

“I’m kind of in between. I can’t really communicate well with the hearing community without my hearing aids, but I can’t really communicate with the deaf community because I don’t know much ASL,” says Beach, who uses a combination of hearing aids and lip reading to communicate.

People may also use speech, residual hearing, hearing aids, speech-reading and gesturing to communicate with people who do not sign.

Beach didn’t start learning ASL when she was younger, but when she began her practicum placement with Durham Deaf Services in Oshawa. She has yet to master ASL.

Hearing loss isn’t the only reason individuals and families learn ASL.

Ashley Muir learned ASL so she could communicate with her younger brother, Matthew, who has autism and Down syndrome.

Matthew was non-verbal for the early years of his life, and his only form of communication was sign language, says Muir, who started learning ASL at the age of eight.

When she was around 10-years-old, Muir attended a summer camp organized by Durham Deaf Services. Many of the counsellors were deaf.

“It was amazing,” she says. “It was interesting for me to be a part of, because it was a summer camp meant mainly for children who are deaf, so it was a cool way to immerse myself in deaf culture.”

The biggest impact of learning basic sign for Muir was her ability to actually understand what her brother was signing.

Before the family learned ASL to communicate with Matthew, they were forced to use process of elimination.

They would rule out possibilities as they went along, finally coming to the answer.

“When he finally learned ASL, instead of screaming or crying, it was… more apple, or more drink,” says Muir.

People expect that either Muir or her brother are deaf when they see them signing but ASL is a major form of accessibility for people with various types of disabilities — and it is not limited to only communicating with people in the deaf community.

Muir relates the issue to wheelchair ramps and how ramps provide accessibility for people who need it, but they also provide convenience for people who face other challenges.

School can be a challenge for people with disabilities.

Mainstream schooling is a term used when children who need specific accommodations are placed in a general education classroom.

The number of deaf children who are sent to mainstream schools is at 92 per cent, according to the Canadian Culture Society of the Deaf.

Many disabled kids are pushed to be what people without disabilities consider normal — to distance themselves from their diagnosis, instead of pushing them to find their own form of normal.

Beach has found her new ‘normal’ volunteering with Durham Deaf Services. She now calls herself an accessibility advocate.